Terry Jones and Chaucer
Posted: 23 January 2020 05:22 AM   [ Ignore ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1484
Joined  2007-04-28

The Python has sadly just died and in an obit it says:

In 1980, he published Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, arguing that the supposed paragon of Christian virtue could be demonstrated to be, if one studied the battles Chaucer claimed he was involved in, a typical, perhaps even vicious, mercenary.

I haven’t read the book but I remember hearing him talking about it. He had been puzzled by the caustic Chaucer listing boring battles which Jones claimed would all have been known to Chaucer’s contemporary readers and recognised as ignoble and shameful affairs. Has this view been accepted? It’s hard to believe that no Chaucer scholars were historians before this and vice versa.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 23 January 2020 09:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1405
Joined  2007-03-01

Has this view been accepted?

No, it hasn’t. Here is a round-up of various takes on it.

Disclaimer: it’s decades since I read Jones’s book. But my feeling is that it’s all very well for us to dismiss the Crusade of Alexandria as an ignoble looting expedition, and the Reconquista and the campaigns of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic as brutal empire-building, but 14th-century people didn’t see them that way. Yes, the spiritual prestige of crusading had dimmed considerably since the 11th century; but there still was a general agreement that it was a Good or at the very lowest estimate an Acceptable Thing. NB that no less a personage than the Earl of Derby had taken a force to assist in the siege of Grenada, the earliest of the battles Chaucer credited his knight with; and at around the time Chaucer was actually writing the Tales, the future Henry IV twice made expeditions to fight in Lithuania.  And while Jones asserted that Chaucer modelled the Knight on the English condottiere John Hawkwood, it’s notable that Italy is one country to which Chaucer did not send his Knight. Here’s a discussion of the Knight’s campaigns, where they were and what he might have been doing there.

One final note: Chaucer describes the Squire, the Knight’s son, as the epitome of the romantic lover - handsome, curled and fashionably dressed, poetic, literary, musical - but takes care to point out that in addition to all this courtly foppery,

...he hadde been somtyme in chyvachie
In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie,
And born hym weel, as of so litel space,
In hope to stonden in his lady grace.

Now, a chevauchée was one of the nastiest but most effective tactics of chivalric warfare: a mounted raid into enemy territory, whose objective was to burn and pillage as much as possible, and either slaughter the peasantry or force them to flee en masse to fortified towns and castles. This not only weakened your enemy by impoverishing and disorganising his lands, but undermined his credibility as a ruler, unless he came out and gave battle at a place of your choosing. It was also, for fully-armed knights, a relatively safe activity; you’d have to be quite unlucky for a desperate peasant to manage to kill or even wound you. Nevertheless, to Chaucer and his audience it was an understood thing that for a young man to have taken part and ‘borne himself well’ in these expeditions showed manly prowess that might be expected to make his lady-love think well of him.

[ Edited: 23 January 2020 01:50 PM by Syntinen Laulu ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 January 2020 05:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1484
Joined  2007-04-28

A parfit answer with a fascinating link, SL! Now i’m wondering how Jones got it so wrong. Thanks.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 January 2020 05:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6961
Joined  2007-01-03

Jill Mann’s edition of the Canterbury Tales (Penguin, 2005), which was the one I used in grad school, includes a note about Jones’s book that essentially says that his ideas have not received “general acceptance,” and includes citations to the refuting scholarship (When I read that in school, I did not realize that “T. Jones” was the Python.)

It is a perfectly legitimate mode of critique to read the Knight’s Tale, or any text, from a present-day perspective, a reader-response rather than a historicist take, but I don’t know if Jones does this (I haven’t read his book, I’m not a Chaucerian scholar; nor have I taught the Knight’s Tale, so I’ve had no reason to delve into the question). From what Syntinen Laulu and Mann’s note says, I take it that Jones was arguing that Chaucer’s contemporaries would have viewed the passage as ironic, which is, to say the least, a stretch.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 03 February 2020 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  882
Joined  2007-06-20
venomousbede - 25 January 2020 05:20 AM

A parfit answer with a fascinating link, SL! Now i’m wondering how Jones got it so wrong. Thanks.

Did he? Rosalind Johnson in that post SL links to actually says:  “no one attacks the whole argument, and none are completely convincing.” It seems to me that Jones’s interpretation is very far from debunked. It also seems to me to do a disservice to Chaucer to insist that the surface interpretation has to be the only interpretation.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 04 February 2020 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6961
Joined  2007-01-03

I preface this by again saying I’m not a Chaucerian scholar and I have not read Jones’s book nor any of the critiques of it, but I am an expert (or at least credentialed) in medieval English literature. Note the Kate Sampsell, the blogger, is not a medievalist. Her PhD is in Depression-era history.

While I agree with the general point of Sampsell’s post that SL linked to above—that Jones’s book is neither entirely rejected nor embraced whole-heartedly—I do have some problems with what the blogger says about Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.

Sampsell concludes that the tale is not very good, but that’s an unfair assessment. Yes, the modern reader who comes into the tale cold will likely find it dull and excruciatingly long. But if you read the tale with knowledge of the source material (Boccaccio) and an eye for how Chaucer alters it, especially by introducing philosophical elements such as Boethian ideas, into the text, it becomes fascinating. It also works as an example of the type of tale the character of the knight might tell and as a template for the ideal medieval tale (which Chaucer will alter and play with in the following tales). He does address many of the same philosophical ideas more adroitly in Troilus and Criseyde. Dating Chaucer’s works is something of a fool’s errand, but if that work is later, the difference in quality may be due in part to his being a more mature poet.

It’s also generally accepted that The Knight’s Tale is an earlier work (like the Second Nun’s Tale and possibly Melibee) that Chaucer later included in the Canterbury Tales. The first two are cited as stand-alone works in the Legend of Good Women and all three had lives circulating independently from the rest of the Canterbury Tales

Sampsell also indicates the alleged failings of the tale are deliberate, and one point of evidence is that it is the first of the tales. Chaucer would not but a bad tale first. But it’s first for other reasons. The Knight, as the pilgrim with the highest status goes first, and others are supposed to follow in descending order of social status. Of course, Chaucer proceeds to disrupt that order almost immediately, with the miller coming next. There is a drawing of lots to see who goes first, which the knight wins. This can be interpreted in three ways: 1) social order is divinely ordained, therefore the lots follow the divine pattern; 2) the host has rigged the game in an attempt to suck up to the knight; 3) who is on top of the social order is a matter of chance. Chaucer is a skilled enough writer to be aware of all three possibilities and leave the answer ambiguous. Also, the structural template of the Knight’s Tale will be referred to in succeeding ones.

I disagree with the notion that Jones puts forward that the Knight’s Tale is intended as satire, but from what I have read so far, Jones is not coming from out of left field. His work is grounded in earlier scholarship, and he does say some interesting things, and any scholarly discussion of the topic should address his ideas.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 10 February 2020 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1484
Joined  2007-04-28

I missed the first link in SL’s post and have just read the (Dissenting Ideas) essay and realise I was wrong to say Jones got it all wrong. He was clearly a Chaucer expert who conducted exhaustive historical research whose ideas were dismissed by crusty old academics who wouldn’t have changed their minds about anything. Terry’s ideas have opened the door to fruitful debate though SL’s point about the virtuous Squire is pertinent and I wonder if Jones covered it.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 10 February 2020 11:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6961
Joined  2007-01-03

I wouldn’t go that far. It seems he had some interesting ideas, but that his analysis has not been entirely accepted for a variety of good reasons.

There is no “right” in humanities research. (You can be wrong, but there is no one “right” answer.)

I’ve obtained a copy of Jones’s book, but I’ve yet to crack it open.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 10 February 2020 02:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  6961
Joined  2007-01-03

Anecdote:

There is a huge conference of medievalists each year in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A few years back, Jones showed up. The reaction among everyone I talked with was 1) fandom for his Python work, and 2) recognition that he was serious scholar. Unfortunately, he and I didn’t cross paths. It really is a big conference.

(I have yet to meet a medievalist who doesn’t love Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I know that statistically there must be some, but they are vanishingly rare.)

Profile
 
 
   
 
 
‹‹ appertaining      Profanity in the film 1917 ››